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9.2: The Concept and Experience of Aging

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    Learning Objectives
    1. Define social gerontology.
    2. Distinguish biological aging, psychological aging, and social aging.

    Here is why you should want to know about aging and the problems older people face: You will be old someday. At least you will be old if you do not die prematurely from an accident, cancer, a heart attack, some other medical problem, murder, or suicide. Although we do not often think about aging when we are in our late teens and early twenties, one of our major goals in life is to become old. By studying age and aging and becoming familiar with some of the problems facing the elderly now and in the future, we are really studying something about ourselves and a stage in the life course we all hope to reach.

    Life expectancy (LE) is a statistical measure of the average time an organism (in our case human) is expected to live, based on the year of its birth, its current age and other demographic factors including gender. There are great variations in life expectancy between different parts of the world, mostly caused by differences in public health, medical care, and diet. Comparing life expectancies from birth across countries can be problematic. There are differing definitions of live birth versus stillbirth even among more developed countries, and less developed countries often have poor reporting.

    Worldwide, the average life expectancy at birth was 71.5 years, 68.4 years for males and 72.8 years for females over the period 2010–2015 according to United Nations World Population Prospects (UN Population Prospects, Revised 2015).

    In the United States, African-American people have shorter life expectancies than their European-American counterparts. For example, white Americans born in 2010 are expected to live until age 78.9, but black Americans only until age 75.1. In contrast, Asian-American women live the longest of all ethnic groups in the United States, with a life expectancy of 85.8 years. The life expectancy of Hispanic Americans is 81.2 years (Center for Disease Control, CDC, 2019).

    Overall, the United States ranks 49 globally in LE. The highest life expectancy is found in Monaco (Europe) and the lowest life expectancy is found in Angola (Africa) (“Life Expectancy”, 2019). Ranking 49 in the world in life expectancy doesn’t sound so bad when you consider over 200 countries contribute data but it is problematic and concerning given the comparative abundance of resources of the United States. Some argue that the United States, with access to health sciences, technology, and supported innovation should be a global leader in life expectancy rates with a much higher global ranking.

    Because we all want to live into old age, the study of age and aging helps us understand something about ourselves and a stage in the life course we all hope to reach. (Carl Nenzén Lovén – Grandpa – CC BY 2.0.)

    The study of aging is so important and popular that it has its own name, gerontology. Social gerontology is the study of the social aspects of aging (Novak, 2012).Novak, M. (2012). Issues in aging (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson. The scholars who study aging are called gerontologists. The people they study go by several names, most commonly “older people,” “elders,” and “the elderly.” The latter term is usually reserved for those 65 or older, while “older people” and “elders” often include people in their fifties as well as those 60 or older.

    Dimensions of Aging

    Age and aging have four dimensions. The dimension most of us think of is chronological age, defined as the number of years since someone was born. A second dimension is biological aging, which refers to the physical changes that “slow us down” as we get into our middle and older years. For example, our arteries might clog up, or problems with our lungs might make it more difficult for us to breathe. A third dimension, psychological aging, refers to the psychological changes, including those involving mental functioning and personality, that occur as we age. Gerontologists emphasize that chronological age is not always the same thing as biological or psychological age. Some people who are 65, for example, can look and act much younger than some who are 50.

    The fourth dimension of aging is social. Social aging refers to changes in a person’s roles and relationships, both within their networks of relatives and friends and in formal organizations such as the workplace and houses of worship. Although social aging can differ from one individual to another, it is also profoundly influenced by the perception of aging that is part of a society’s culture. If a society views aging positively, the social aging experienced by individuals in that society will be more positive and enjoyable than in a society that views aging negatively. As we shall see, though, the perception of aging in the United States is not very positive, with important consequences for our older citizens.


    • The study of the elderly and aging helps us understand problems in a state of the life course we all hope to reach.
    • Biological aging refers to the physical changes that accompany the aging process, while psychological aging refers to the psychological changes that occur.
    • Social aging refers to the changes in a person’s roles and relationships as the person ages.

    Think about it

    1. Think about an older person whom you know. To what extent has this person experienced psychological aging? To what extent has this person experienced social aging?
    2. The perception of aging in the United States is not very positive. What do you think accounts for this?

    This page titled 9.2: The Concept and Experience of Aging is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jennifer Ounjian via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.